Giovanni Antonio Canal

Giovanni Antonio Canal, aka Canaletto (1697-1768) was a Venetian artist; considered an important member of the 18th century Venetian school.

His huge body of work in oil on canvas, drawings and prints from etchings, included precisely depicted and evocative city views, (“vedute”), idealised scenes (“verduta ideata”) and imaginary views (“capricci”); of Venice, Rome and London.

In the period from 1746 to 1756, he worked in England; where he painted many views of London and other sites, including Warwick and Alnwick Castle. He was highly successful in England, thanks to the British merchant and connoisseur Joseph “Consul” Smith, whose large collection of Canaletto’s works; was sold to King George III in 1762.

Perhaps his most important work is “The Stonemason’s Yard”, an early work which he painted in 1729, since it is the true embodiment of his rare talent as a topographical painter; carefully designed, individual and atmospheric.

In 1755, Canaletto returned to Venice, for the rest of his highly productive life.





      Giovanni Antonio Canal (Canaletto).

                         (18 October 1697 – 19 April 1768).






Giovanni Antonio Canal – EARLY LIFE AND TRAINING

Only limited biographical details exist about Giovanni Antonio Canal, the artist better known as “Canaletto” (little Canal in Italian).

Giovanni Antonio Canal, was born on 18th October 1697 in Venice, to Bernardo Canal and his wife Artemsia Barbieri. They were thought to be members of an upper-class Venetian family, that included noblemen and “attadini originarii” (original citizens).

Canaletto remained unmarried and there is no record of any romantic relationship, that he might have had at any point in his life.

Bernardo Canal was a well-respected theatrical scene painter and Canaletto and his elder brother Christoforo; joined their father as his apprentices.

Roman period. Having already helped to design and create the sets for operas by Fortunato Chelleri, Giovanni Porto and Antonio Vivaldi, the 21-year-old Canaletto travelled with his father to Rome in 1718, to work on set designs for a series of Alessandro Scarlatti operas (“Tito Sempronio Greco” and “Turno Aricino”, which were performed at the Teatro Catranica, during the carnival season of 1720).

It proved to be a turning point in Canaletto’s life, since it was on this excursion; that he took the decision to abandon theatrical design altogether. According to an early critic and associate, Canaletto had grown tired of the theatre and “bored with the indiscretion of the dramatic poets.”


  • Veduta. (Italian for “view”; plural vedute) is a highly detailed, usually large-scale painting, or more often a print of a cityscape or some other vista. The painters of vedute are referred to as “vedutisti” . This genre of landscape originated in Flanders, where artists such as Paul Bril painted vedute; as early as the 16th century.
  • Veduta ideata. A style in which real and imaginary combinations are used to heighten the picture’s sense of drama. 
  • Capriccio. As part of the painting’s title, it acts to inform the viewer that the painting is in fact a fantasy or of the imagination; albeit a fantasy grounded in reality.


Left: Veduta ideata with Roman Ruins. (1720-2). Oil on Canvas.

Canaletto focused his artistic attention, onto the ancient Roman monuments, as well as modern buildings. These formative architectural drawings, made in realistic detail; became his first independent subjects. The way in which he rendered them, was to form the basis for his mature style.

Direct precedents for Canaletto’s painting, can be found in the work of the French landscape painter Claude Lorrain; who made his name in Italy during the preceding 17th century. Claude is credited with turning the landscape genre into the more respectable “history painting” and like him; Canaletto would dramatize them with a smattering of small figures.

The precise mastery of perspectives and dramatization, is also clearly evident in Canaletto’s work; derived from his theatrical training and also from Italian Renaissance traditions. Inspiration was also drawn from the Roman “vedute” paintings of Giovanni Paolo Pannini, which Canaletto admired.


Left: Architectural Capriccio (1923). Oil on canvas.

The “Capriccio” of the painting’s title, acts to inform the spectator that the painting is in fact a fantasy or of the imagination; albeit a fantasy grounded in reality.

Completed early in his career and while still in Rome, this work is an example of the “veduta ideate” style in which real and imaginary combinations are used to heighten the picture’s sense of drama. Canaletto had used real architectural structures as the template for his painting, but in a gesture of artistic licence; he combined the Roman architectural elements of his immediate surroundings with those belonging to his native Venice. Once more, the theatrical element of the painting reflects Canaletto’s early training; yet the vivid attention to fine detail in which he renders the landscape, sets the bar for the rest of his career.



Following his return to Venice in 1719, Canaletto started painting the daily life of the city and its people. These were the first of the topographical paintings (veduta), on which he built his reputation.

Once resettled in Venice, Canaletto had studied under a “cityscape” painter, Luca Carlevaris. Soon surpassing his master’s modest talents, Canaletto produced his first known signed work; an Architectural Capriccio, dated 1723.

Two years later, the painter Alessandro Marchesini, who was also the buyer for the Lucchese art collector Stefano Conti; had arrived in Venice with the aim of purchasing two Venetian views by Carlevaris. He was directed instead towards Canaletto, who as his agent informed him; was “like Carlevaris“, but with the sun shining.”

Canaletto’s early artworks, were often painted in natural surroundings; when the convention of the day dictated that paintings be completed in the studio. Some of the details in his paintings were added in a studio, but his paintings became admired for their almost scientific accuracy and Canaletto became known as a “master vedutista”, in his own right.

These early works remain his most coveted and according to many authorities, his finest. One of these is “The Stonemason’s Yard” (c. 1725), the National Gallery, London; which depicts a humble working area of the city. (Left – note the yard was opposite what is now the Academy and also there was no bridge at that time.)

Later Canaletto painted grand scenes of the canals of Venice and the Doge’s Palace. His large-scale landscapes, portrayed the city’s pageantry and waning traditions; making innovative use of atmospheric effects and strong local colours. For these qualities, his works may have said to have anticipated Impressionism.

However, despite his commitment to the rules of verisimilitude; Canaletto was not above embellishing his work through subtle geographic modifications. This can be seen in his painting: “The Rialto Bridge from the North” (1726-27) Oil on canvas. (Below)

This Canaletto painting, now in the UK Royal collection, features an iconic view of Venice; that of the Rialto Bridge positioned between city buildings on either side of the Grand Canal.  This particular example is one of twelve compositions of the canal, observed from the same vantage point.

Characteristic of his style, the view served almost as a facsimile of modern Venice.

According to a catalogue entry from The Royal Collection Trust – “there is no one viewpoint that encompasses all these crowded buildings, and Canaletto has opened out the topography to give an impression of space. The bridge has been moved to the left to show most of its width; the short, sunlit façade of the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi actually lies almost flush with the front of the Fabbriche, and Canaletto turned the Palazzo through almost 90° to create a square on the bank of the canal.” By taking such liberties with “the truth,” Canaletto had created a more dramatic and aesthetically pleasing cityscape.



As his reputation started to build, Canaletto came to the attention of three influential agents; who helped promote and advance his artistic talent throughout Europe.

Firstly in 1721, the Irishman Owen McSwiny, who had settled in Venice; arranged Canaletto’s first overseas commission for the collection of Charles Lennox, the Second Duke of Richmond.

During the 1730’s, another agent Anton Maria Zanetti the Younger; was instrumental in furthering Canaletto’s career by adding several paintings to the collection of the Prince of Liechtenstein, Joseph Wenzel.  He remarked that he was “so distinctive a painter of views that few amongst past artists, and none amongst the favourites, come close to him in intelligence, taste and truth“.

Finally, sometime before 1728, Canaletto began his association with Joseph Smith, an English businessman and collector living in Venice, who was appointed British Consul in Venice, in 1744.

Smith later became the artist’s principal agent and patron, acquiring nearly fifty paintings, one hundred and fifty drawings and fifteen rare etchings from Canaletto. It was the largest and finest single group of the artist’s works, which he sold to King George III, in 1763 for £20,000. This sale, created the bulk of the large collection of works by Canaletto owned by the Royal Collection.

There are many examples of his work in other British collections, including the Wallace Collection and a set of 24 in the dining room at Woburn Abbey. A large set of Canaletto works, was also part of the collection of the Earls of Carlisle. However, many were lost in 1940, due to a fire at Castle Howard and others were sold over the last century.

Canaletto’s Etchings    

Etching is an art form which proved particularly popular within Venice, during the 18th century and Canaletto was at the forefront of that; most notably with a series of 30 etchings commissioned by Smith, which he produced between 1740-45.  (He went to England in 1746.)

Why Canaletto, turned to etching, is most probably due to the ongoing “War of the Austrian Succession” (1740-1748); which meant that it was no longer feasible for wealthy British travellers to undertake their Grand Tours. Print reproductions produced from original etchings, has often been used to make an additional income stream and help to support careers. These printed artworks, can also be used as a way to spread reputations further; by being more affordable and also easily transportable to other countries. It was also feasible that Canaletto had reached a point in his career, where demand for his services had reached extraordinary levels; that he was simply unable to satisfy.

Renowned for the extraordinary level of detail in his work, made his approach ideal for this highly technical medium. It was fairly popular in previous centuries and promoted by some of the most famous artists in history. Goya, Zorn, Rembrandt and Durer, were all passionate about creating different content; using these traditional techniques.

Canaletto was an artist who produced detailed scenes from both reality and imagination and his famous series of etchings; made good use of his technique and both sources of inspiration. The etchings are exceptionally skillful and sensitive; showing a command of perspective and luminosity.


Before the existence of postcards or photographs, Canaletto’s skill at capturing the feel and image of Venice, brought him popularity among tourists; many of whom purchased his paintings as mementos of their travels.

The demand for works by Canaletto overseas, was due in part to “the rational taste of British and Irish collectors making their Grand Tour”. They were mainly young aristocrats on an educational journey through Europe; to search for works featuring clear, scientific prospective developments.”

Left: The Grand Canal and the Church of the Salute (1730)


Canaletto often made meticulous preparatory drawings. He may well have used a “camera obscura” for topographical accuracy, in creating some of his designs. but he always remained concerned with producing satisfying compositional designs and not simply slavishly recording views. The is today however, a significant difference of opinion; as to the extent of his use of the device.

(Note. The Camera Obscura. It was essentially a box, that allowed light to be admitted through a tiny pinhole, onto an angled mirror and created an exact reflected image onto a surface, from which one could trace.)

Canaletto’s career was not without its controversy. Canaletto had trained and influenced his nephew, Bernardo Bellotto, to such a high degree, that at times, it would prove difficult to differentiate between the two artists’ work. Bernardo would become his uncle’s assistant for many years, before branching out as an artist in his own right.

The pair were close, even travelling together in 1742, on a trip to Dolo and Padua; where they drew inspiration from nature for future paintings. However, once Bellotto struck out on his own, he tried to capitalise and profit from his uncle’s name; often giving the false impression that he was in fact Canaletto.

Bellotto even put his great mentor’s name to his own art and he was particularly successful at this in countries like Poland and Germany, where his uncle was not active. Indeed, whilst residing in London, the question of the authenticity of some of his work; was questioned by some critics.

Left: The Bucintoro by the Molo on Ascension Day. (1729-1730)



THE LONDON PERIOD (1746-1755).

Canaletto arrived in London in 1746. There were probably, two key reasons for his move. First, was the war in Europe (War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748), which meant that it was no longer feasible for wealthy British travellers to undertake their Grand Tours. When the money stopped coming to Canaletto, he decided to go to the money!

Secondly, following peace with France, there was a new confidence and economic boom in Britain and Canaletto was swept up by how vibrant and exciting Britain was.

Canaletto lived in England for nine years, except for several months return to Venice in 1750; in order to settle some business affairs. Between 1749 and 1752, Canaletto lived at number 41 Beak Street, in London’s Soho district.

During this London period, he completed plenty of commissions from wealthy Englishmen who wanted paintings of their own grand houses and castles. He was also well-known for painting the sights and sounds of London and the newly constructed Westminster Bridge in particular; was one of his favourite subjects.

Left:  A self-portrait with Saint Pauls in the Background, 1746.


Authenticity allegations. Unfortunately for Canaletto, rumours began to circulate that the paintings sold on Canaletto’s name; might not be authentic. The English art critic George Vertue, suggested that the man painting under the name ‘Canaletto’ was an imposter.

This may have been because Canaletto’s nephew, Bernardo Bellotto, was also using his uncle’s nickname, especially in countries where his uncle was not active. Another factor was the possibility that the story had been spread by unscrupulous art dealers, who had been passing off copies of Canaletto’s own work and were anxious to see him return to Venice.

To counter these allegations, Canaletto published two invitations, in the Daily Advertiser, a London newspaper; firstly in 1749 and again in 1751. These were for the public to join him in his studio, where they might witness for themselves that he was living and working in England and creating genuine works.

Another issue, was that he was often expected to paint English subjects, in the fashion with which he had painted his native city. Canaletto’s critics suggested that his painting, had begun to suffer from repetitiveness, lack of fluidity and of becoming mechanical. Historian Michael Levey, described his work from this period as “inhibited“.

 Left: Westminster Bridge from the north on Lord Mayor’s Day (1746)


A new market for “properly finished prints”.

During the years in England, drawing assumed a new role with more fine drawings “properly finished with wash”, began to appear.  Indeed, Canaletto’s reputation as a supreme draughtsman was enhanced by these pieces; which were in very high demand amongst collectors. Completed in real time, rather than finished later in the studio, more refined drawings; reflected a new market in England for his works.

Warwick Castle was a source of interest for Canaletto, once he had left the confines of London and ventured further out into the English countryside.

Left: Warwick Castle: The East Front (1752) Pen and brown ink with grey wash

Earl of Warwick, Lord Brooke, had undertaken a project to improve Warwick Castle and the newly landscaped grounds, designed by ‘Capability’ Brown”. The commission, including five oil paintings and three pen and ink drawings; is thought to have been funded by Lord Brooke for his London residence and in order “to allow him to present the newly improved Castle to his London associates.”

Commenting on Canaletto’s technique, art critic Kowalczyk, picked out the …”slightly wavy strokes in the rendering of the castle structures […] the fluid rounded strokes of the figures [that] contribute, together with the impressionistic application of the wash in the shadows cast by the trees, to the creation of a vibrant luminosity and atmospheric effect.” Later observing that these were “effects that would influence the School of English Landscape Painters, beginning with Paul Sandby.”




In 1755 Canaletto returned to Venice, for the rest of his life; continuing to paint until his death in 1768.

He produced both topographical and idealised paintings and drawings (some for engraving); broadening his subject matter to include views of Rome. Canaletto also evolved an increasingly linear and less atmospheric manner; that suited his clients’ demands for accuracy and also was more readily taught to assistants. Except for his nephew Bernardo Bellotto, none of Canaletto’s many pupils are known, but he was widely imitated in both Venice and England during his lifetime.

In his later years he often worked from old sketches, but he also produced a few smaller scale vertical compositions; altering his painting technique to embrace the new Rococo style.

In 1763, after an earlier rejection, he was elected as a member of the Venetian Academy of Painting and Sculpture and appointed as prior of the College of Painting.

Proud of the fact that he was able to continue to paint in the last years of his life; he once boasted of this by inscribing a work from 1766 with the words, “at 68 years of age without Glasses.”

Left: The Piazza San Marco, looking East from the Colonnade of the Procuratie Nuove, Venice. (1758-60). Oil on canvas.

In this painting, he focusses on the southern side of the Piazza San Marco; featuring what are probably well-dressed patrons of the first self-styled Italian café, which was founded in 1720. The work represents a shift in artistic style and one can see a willingness to embrace the Rococo style. The painting demonstrates, a softening of brushstrokes and a lightened intensity of detail; as well as a picture scenario that is more focused on leisure and frivolity.

Apparently, it has been suggested that Canaletto suffered financially in his later years, spending the end of his life in near poverty. This was despite his widespread popularity and commercial success; as well as a career that produced more than 1000 paintings and drawings.

He died from a bladder inflammation on the 19th April 1768, at the age of 70 in Venice. He left behind just a few possessions; which was said to include – “a modest investment in a property and 28 unsold pictures“!



According to some art historians, Canaletto has left a somewhat mixed legacy. Having looked so closely at his work over several weeks to research this post; to me the main area for any critical comment, seems to be in his later works, where his topographical views were more formulaic and the fact that he also had an organised studio and assistants to support him.

He produced a huge body of work, in oils, drawing and prints from etchings, throughout a career that spanned close to five decades. Highly in demand during his lifetime, his topographies provided inspiration for the next generation of cityscape and landscape; who advanced his fastidious style of painting.

Following artists influenced by him, included his duplicitous nephew Bernardo Bellotto; but also including the Italians Giovanni Battista Cimaroli, Antonio Diziani, Francesco Guardi, and Francesco Zuccarelli and a generation of English landscape painters, including Paul Sandby.

Canaletto elevated the “vedute” painting style and should be considered a trailblazer, in his application of the use of the camera obscura and his approach of rendering his chosen views, in real time and space.

While painting on location became the very foundation for the development of “Impressionism”, one of the earliest modern art movements; it was close to unheard of in Canaletto’s time.

In this regard, his early works in oils are considered his finest, in particular ‘The Stonemason’s Yard’ which he painted c. 1725; since it is the true embodiment of his rare talents as a topographical painter.

However, some critical questions regarding authenticity were made, during his London period. Many of these these accusations were later proved to be false. No doubt British artists and their friendly critics, were keen to protect their own market and the fact his work was widely copied; meant that imitators were keen to see the back of him in the UK!

There is also the fact that back in Venice, these later, formulaic paintings for tourists were very lucrative and were produced; often in collaboration with an organised workshop employing assistants. Except for his nephew Bernardo Bellotto, none of Canaletto’s many pupils are known.

The very fact that his work was most popular and lucrative among tourists, highlights the stuffy tone of “official” art histories. It was a conundrum addressed by J.G. Links who noted that while Canaletto had been “manifestly a great artist [and] recognised as such by some of the best-informed connoisseurs of his time, ….. the artist’s “immense success had been due to this appeal to the most unsophisticated taste, namely the tourist”!

Long after his death Canaletto’s paintings changed hands at astronomical sums. The painting “View of the Grand Canal from the Palazzo Baibi to the Rialto” went for £18.6 million at an auction in 2005.



Please see my introductory post, on the Second Golden Age of Art: together with its most important artists: 

 Venetian Artists-18th Century

Foreign Artists working in Venice

Turner in Venice         Whistler in Venice

Monet in Venice

Canaletto and the Art of Venice. The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace 


Giovanni Antonio Canal (Canaletto)    Giovanni Antonio Canal (Canaletto)    Giovanni Antonio Canal (Canaletto)

Giovanni Antonio Canal (Canaletto)    Giovanni Antonio Canal (Canaletto)    Giovanni Antonio Canal (Canaletto)

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